Meet the Arab social media generation
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#Arabyouthsurvey was trending following the publication of the eighth Asda’a Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey, aptly demonstrating young Arabs’ close relationship with social media.
The survey indicated that, in the post-“Arab spring” Middle East, social media are more important than ever. For Arab youth, social media are means to communicate with each other, interact with the world and consume and share news.
“Throughout the Middle East, social media have emerged as a replacement for the lack of public space. This is not a complacent and subservient youth that feels constrained by the governing practices of the past. Rather, it is a youth that actively seeks a broader and deeper role for itself in shaping its own environment and the societies in which they live,” said a report on the survey, titled Inside the Hearts and Minds of Arab Youth.
For Palestinian-Canadian writer Chaker Khazaal, who has more than 250,000 twitter followers and was selected “most influential young Arab” by Arabian Business magazine in 2016, the role of social media could not be more important. “Arab youth are engaged in social media because it has given them a voice to express their opinions on social, political and civic matters directly to their peers and unfiltered from any forms of oppression,” said Khazaal, who spoke on the Arab Youth Survey panel.
“Social media have become the only independent voice where Arab youth, journalists, [non-governmental organisations] and activists can express their individual point of view.”
Instant messaging service WhatsApp is, by far, the most popular social media platform with about 60% of young Arabs saying they use it on a daily basis; 55% of respondents said they used Facebook daily, compared to 33% who said they used YouTube and 28% who used Twitter or Instagram.
WhatsApp, owned by Facebook, is one of the most popular messaging apps in the Middle East and not just for young people. One of the reasons for the app’s popularity is its perceived strong encryption, with WhatsApp recently providing even stronger end-to-end encryption in an update.
“WhatsApp has always prioritised making your data and communication as secure as possible… No one can see inside the message. Not cybercriminals. Not hackers. Not oppressive regimes. Not even us,” WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum wrote in a blog post announcing the latest update.
It is in their news consumption that Arab youth habits are changing the most and fastest. The Arab Youth Survey appeared to strike the death knell for print media, with 7% of respondents saying they read newspapers on a daily basis. In 2011, the year that marked the start of the “Arab spring”, 62% of Arabs aged 18-24 said they read newspapers on a daily basis.
Overall, most young Arabs continue to get their news from television (63%) and online sources (45%) but social media are becoming increasingly popular ways of consuming and particularly sharing news; 52% of respondents said they used Facebook to share interesting news articles, up from 41% in 2015. About one-third of those asked said they used social media in general — without specifying which platforms — to obtain their daily dose of news, with social media and online news consumption necessarily going hand-in-hand.
“Newspapers and traditional forms of media need to provide a platform and voice without any restrictions to Arab youth. This will renew the youth’s faith in these institutions and therefore allow their continuity, rather than it being the end of them,” Khazaal said. “Social media have and will continue to provide a much needed check and balance on the media industry as a whole and I believe society benefits from this contrast of points of view.”
Arab youth are following global trends with more people accessing news through social media networks. A 2015 report by the Pew Research Center said that 63% of Facebook and Twitter users said they get news from the sites, with young people particularly relying on social media as news sources.
The chapter focusing on young Arabs’ use of media, titled The Age of Social, was written by Damian Radcliffe, a journalism professor at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication.
“This preference to digest news digitally — and often on the move — is only likely to increase as smartphones become increasingly affordable. The GSMA, a trade body for the global mobile industry, anticipates that the number of smartphone connections in the region will grow by 117 million to 327 million by the end of the decade,” he wrote.
“For some audiences, social media are the primary means by which news and information are both discovered and distributed, a trait that is only going to become more prevalent,” Radcliffe said in the report.
“As social networks develop further links with publishers, government entities and other media providers, their influence — and importance — is only going to grow.”